Copyright © 1999 Úlfgrim Vílmeiđson
(Version 1.3 - updated 5/18/99)
The Sagas and poetic sources give several clear examples of the mechanics underlying the worship of the Gods during the Víking Era. While a blót (pronounced "bloat" and meaning "sacrifice") might be held for any occasion, there were four fixed times of the year at which they were regularly scheduled; in autumn (dísablót), at the beginning of winter (vetrarblót), midwinter (jólablót), and the beginning of spring (sigrblót). An alfablót, held at an indeterminate time during the year, was also celebrated, although it was more of a personal household celebration than a public one. The idea of a neat set of eight sacred days held on the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarters seems to have been foreign to the historical Norse practice. Heimskringla states:
"It is their custom to have a sacrifice in the autumn and welcome the winter, another at mid-winter, the third at the beginning of summer; then they welcome the summer. The Eynir, Sparbyggjar, Verdćlir, and Skeynir take part in this. There are twelve men who are the foremost in managing the sacrifice-feasts; this spring Ölvir is to hold the feast; he is now very busy in Mćri, and all provisions needed for the feast are brought thither." (St. Olaf, 115)1
Note that all of the blótar are held with great feasts, known as blótveitsla. This is a feature that applies not only to the three fixed-time blótar, but to those which are held for specific purposes, as well. All of the blótar consist of both the sacrifice of animals (sometimes, but not always, the type of animal depends on the God to whom the offering was being made), followed by a feast and drinking in ritual toasts known as sumbel (a singular noun that refers to all of the toasts together). After the formal rounds of the sumble take place, less formal toasts to ancestors (minni) may be made as well. The sagas relate:
"Sigurd Hlada-jarl was a very great sacrificer, as his father Hakon had been; he kept up all the blótveitsla (sacrificing-feasts) in Thrandheim on the king's behalf. It was an old custom when a sacrifice was to take place that all the boender (farmers) should come to the Hóf , and take with them the provisions needed while the feast lasted. Every man was to bring ale; there were also slaughtered all kinds of small cattle, as well as horses. All the blood which came therefrom was called hlaut, the vessels for holding it hlaut-bolli, an the twigs, hlaut-tein. With them the altars had to be reddened all over, and also the walls of the temple inside and outside; then the men were to be sprinkled with them, but the flesh had to be boiled for the people to eat.
"Fires were to burn on the middle of the temple floor, and kettles to be put on them [for the cooking of the meat from the sacrifices]; the drinking-horns had to be carried around the fire. The chief who made the feast had to consecrate the horns and all the sacrifice-food. The horn of Óđínn must be drunk first, for the victory and power of their king; and then the horn of Njörd and Freyr, for a good year and peace. Many used to drink Bragi's toast [to take a solemn oath; see below under Jólablót] next to these. Men also drank horns for those of their kinsmen who had been great men; these were called minni. Sigurd Jarl was a most open-handed man; he did a very famous deed, as he held a great sacrificing feast at Hladir, and himself alone paid all the costs." (Hakon Adalsteinfostri 16)1
It should also be noted that the order in which the horns were drunk can change according to local custom or circumstances; at a wedding we read:
"When the horn dedicated to Ţórr was brought in, Sigurd changed the tune [he had been playing on the harp]; then all that was loose, both knives and plates, began to move; many jumped from their seats and moved to and fro on the floor; and this continued for a long while. Then came the horn dedicated to all the Ćsir... When the horn consecrated to Óđínn came, Sigurd opened the harp, which was so large a man could stand upright in it... When this toast was finished, the toast consecrated to Freyja, which was to be the last, came in..." (Herraud and Bosi's Saga 12)1
The consecration of items (such as the food and drinking-horns mentioned above) was accomplished by carrying them around the fire (compare this with the use of fire to claim land by carrying the fire around the boundaries of the property). In modern practice, this may be done by carrying the object to be sanctified around a fire three times, each time reciting the following:
"Ćsir ok Alfar, helgi _____ thetta."
("Gods and Elves, make this _____ holy.")
Where the _____ is filled in with whatever it is that is to be sanctified; hlaut (sacrificial blood), meađu (mead), bjór (beer), etc. This is a modern invention; no description of the actual words used (if any) survives.
It is also possible to sanctify food and drink by by making the sign of Ţórr's Hammer over it. This is a motion made with the hand resembling an inverted T; it was similar enough to the Christian tradition of making the sign of a cross over one's cup that the one could be confused for the other.
The basic outline of a blót is thus:
In our modern industrial society, it is rare indeed to have the opportunity or knowledge necessary to kill the sacrificial animals in a way that is efficient and painless. Most urban and suburban dwellers will also simply not have the space or access to livestock necessary. Of course, it is preferable, if possible, to go through the actual sacrifice of the animals itself, but there are alternatives that at least involve most of the process. It is possible to purchase frozen beef or pork blood in some specialty food stores (such as oriental supermarkets). If such is properly sanctified and treated with due reverance (the same goes for store-bought meat for the feast), modern practitioners may pick up the blót at step #2.
The dísablót was held in Autumn, and apparently was celebrated at night. Of it, the lore tells us:
"One autumn there was a great dísablót at King Alf's, and Alfhild went to it; she was more beautiful than any other woman, and all the people in Alfheimar were handsomer than other people at that time; but in the night, as she was redding the hörg [altar] with blood, Starkad Aludreng took her away to his home. Then King Alf invoked Ţórr to seek for Alfhild, and Ţórr killed Starkad, and made Alfhild go home to her father, and Grim the son of Hergrim with her." (Hervarar Saga 1)1
"King Eirik Bloodaxe and Gunnhld came the same evening to Atli, where Bard had prepared a great feast for him, and there was to be a dísablót. There was much drinking and feasting in the hall. The king asked where Bard was, for he saw him nowhere. A man replied, 'Bard is outside helping his guests.' 'Who are these guests?' inquired the King, 'that he thinks it more his duty to be there than inside with us?' The man told him they were the servants (huskarlar) of Mighty Ţórr. The King added, 'Go to them as speedily as possible, and call them in here.' When they came, the King received Ölvir well, and made him sit opposite him in the high-seat, and his men on both sides of him. Egil was next to Ölvir; then ale was brought in, and many memorial toasts [the "Bragi Toast" mentioned above] were drunk, a horn to be emptied at each. As the evening was drawing to a close, many of Ölvir's men became drunk; some of them vomited in the hall, but others went outside." (Egil's Saga 44)1
Thus we can see that the standard pattern attributed to the blót holds true; in the first quote we read of the reddening of the altar, and in the second is made ample reference to the feasting and drinking that took place thereafter. We can also see that the dísablót was a standard feature of Norse religion even in the most conspicuous stronghold of the worship of the Ćsir-- Uppsala, Sweden:
"King Aldis was at a dísablót, and rode on a horse round the dísarsal (hall of the Dísir); his horse stumbled and fell, and the King was thrown off, and his head hit a stone so that it broke and his braids lay on the stone. This caused his death. He died at Uppsala, and is mound-laid there; the Svear [Swedes] called him a powerful King." (Ynglinga Saga 33)1
The nature of the Dísir is complex, and beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that they are spirits that are associated with particular families or individuals (much as Fylgja or Hamingja), and the term "guardian spirit" is possibly the best English description.
The vetrarblót (meaning "winter sacrifice") is held on the 14th of October (also known as "Winter-night"). Heimskringla describes what went on at the vetrarblót:
"That autumn the news was told King Olaf from Thrándheim that the Trands had had great feasts during the winter nights: there had been great drinking. The King was told that all cups were hallowed to the Ćsir according to ancient custom. It was also said that cattle and horses were slaughtered there, the altars reddened with blood, and sacrifices made for the bettering of the year." (St. Olaf, 113)1
The phrase "all cups were hallowed to the Ćsir according to ancient custom" refers to the custom of making the sign of Ţórr's hammer over the rim of the cup before drinking. Note also the reference to animal sacrifices; blood from the sacrifices was poured or sprinkled on the altar to "redden" it. The flesh of the animals sacrificed would then be eaten at the feast.
The jólablót (meaning "Yule sacrifice") was also known as Midsvetrarblót ("mid-winter sacrifice"). It was probably held on January 12th (which is the customary midwinter in Scandinavia). Part of our modern month of January was known as the month of Ţórr; this blót is particularly associated Ţórr and Freyr. The festivities last for three days. At Yule it is especially customary to lead a boar that has been consecrated to Freyr (known as a Sónar golt; "atonement boar") to the feast. Upon this boar men make solemn oaths to Freyr, drinking what is known as the "Bragi toast". Several sources describe this:
"King Heidrek had a boar fed; it was as large as the largest bull, but so fine that it seemed as if every hair on it was of gold. He placed one hand on its head and one on its bristles, and made a vow that never should a man transgress so much that he should not have the lawful judgement of his wise men, and these men should take care of the boar, or else he should come with riddles which the king could not guess." (Hervarar Saga 14)1
"In the evening vows were made, and the Sónar golt was led forward; the men laid their hands on it and made vows at the Bragi toast." (Helga Kvida Hjörvardssonar)1
"One winter at Yuletide, when the people were assembled to drink, Finn said, 'Vows will be made in many places this evening, where it is not better to be than here; now I vow that I will serve the king who is the highest and in all things surpass others.'" (Fornmanna Sögur ii, 201)1
As with all of the blótar, the feast accompanying the holy sacrifice was also the scene of much drinking and comradeship. Heimskringla states:
"Thórodd was with another man at Thórar's. There was a great Yule-feast, the ale being provided by each one himself. There were many besides in the hamlet, who all drank together during Yule. A short way off there was another hamlet. There the brother-in-law of Thórar, a powerful and wealthy man, lived; he had a grown-up son. They were to drink during the half of the Yule at each other's farm, and first at Thórar's." (St. Olaf's Saga, 151)1
The sigrblót (which means "victory sacrifice") was held in mid-April as a sacrifice to obtain victory and good luck in the coming spring and summer months (when both warfare and Víking raids would take place). It was held in honor of Óđínn, who was traditionally the giver of victory in battle:
"Dag, son of Högni, made a sacrifice to Óđínn to avenge his father; Óđínn lent his spear to him. Dag met his brother-in-law Helgi [who had killed Högni] at the place called Fjoturlund, he pierced him with the spear, and Helgi fell there." (Helga kvida Hundingsbana II)1
"When he [Hakon Jarl] had sailed eastward as far as the Gauta Skerries, he went ashore and made a great sacrifice. Two ravens, which croaked loudly, flew towards him, and the jarl thought that Óđínn must have accepted the sacrifice and that he would have a good chance of victory." (Fornmanna Sögur i)1
In addition to the four great fixed winter blótar, sacrifices can be held for nearly any purpose and at nearly any time (ad hoc blótar). The sacrifice of Hakon Jarl mentioned above (quoted from Fornmanna Sögur i) was one such sacrifice-at-need, and there are many other examples may be culled from the lore. One of the best examples of such is as follows:
"Thorri was a great sacrificer; he had a great sacrifice every year at mid-winter which was called Thorrablót; from this the month was named [Thorri]. One winter Gói [Thorri's daughter] disappeared at the Thorrablót; she was searched for and not found. When the month had passed Thorri had a sacrifice in order to find out where Gói was; this they called Góiblót, but they learned nothing about her." (Fornaldar Sögur ii)1
This passage demonstrates two characteristics of the blótar; they were maleable, able to be bent to the needs and desires of the locals (witness how the name of the jólablót was changed to reflect the local chieftan who celebrated it most conspicuously; however, with no indication that the substance or form was changed), while it is taken as commonplace that another blót would be held less than a month later for a specific purpose (in this case, apparenlty, to facilitate divination with the effect of determining what happened to Gói).
Thus, blótar are held to achieve specific goals (divination, victory, or others) in addition to the standard winter-tide sacrifices.
In regards to the alfablót, it was celebrated in the confines of the home, rather than at the central Hóf. Thus, it would not be celebrated by any sort of priest or chieftain, but rather by the individual household (most likely by the head of the household). There is no reason to suspect that the basic format was any different than the more public blótar, but it was apparently a much more private affair, at which strangers were unwelcome. Heimskringla tells us:
"Then they [the messengers of King Olaf Haraldsson] went through Gautland, and one evening came to a farm called Hof. The door was shut and they could not enter; the husband and wife said it was holy there, and they went away. Then they came to another farm; the housewife stood at the door and asked them not to go in, saying they were holding alfablót. Sigvat [an Icelandic skald traveling with the group] sang--
Do not go farther in,
I fear the wrath of Óđínn,
We are heathens.
(St. Olaf, 92)1
The fact that the alfablót was being held in the home tells us that it is intimately conneted with the everyday personal religion as it was practiced (there are parallels to the cult of the Lares in ancient Rome), while the fact that more than one home was celebrating the alfablót at the same time indicates that it did not fall into the category of ad hoc blótar; it was one tied to the calendar. Unfortunately, no indication of the exact timing of the alfablót survives, save that it was celebrated sometime during the winter. Its timing should therefore be determined by local preference, pending new insights into the matter.
The exact nature of the Alfar (elves) is much too complex to relate here. Suffice to say that they are related to the Ćsir, and are renound as craftsmen. They are magical creatures, and are well connected with the God Freyr (who is sometimes referred to as the lord of the Alfar, as their land Alfheim was given to him as a tooth-gift). Yet they are "earthier" beings than the Gods, and are much more connected to the mortal world. The Alfar could be called upon to provide healing, as Thordis told Thorvard after the former had been wounded in his battle with Kormak:
"A short distance from here there is a hill, in which Alfar live. Thou must get the bull, which Kormak killed, and with its blood redden the outside of the hill, and make a feast for the Alfar of the meat, and thou wilt recover." (Kormak's saga 22)1
The comparisons with the other sorts of blótar are obvious; the reddening of the sacred place with the hlaut, and the preparation of the sacred feast.
1) Translation from The Viking Age, Volume I by Paul du Chaillu, chapters 20, 21 & 27, Carles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1890.
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